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Leblanc v. Mathena

United States Court of Appeals, Fourth Circuit

November 7, 2016

DENNIS LEBLANC, Petitioner - Appellee,
RANDALL MATHENA, Chief Warden, Red Onion State Prison, Pound, Virginia; COMMONWEALTH OF VIRGINIA, Respondents - Appellants.

          Argued: May 10, 2016

         Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, at Norfolk. Arenda L. Wright Allen, District Judge. (2:12-cv-00340-AWA-LRL)


          Stuart Alan Raphael, OFFICE OF THE ATTORNEY GENERAL OF VIRGINIA, Richmond, Virginia, for Appellants.

          Bryan A. Stevenson, EQUAL JUSTICE INITIATIVE, Montgomery, Alabama, for Appellee.

         ON BRIEF:

          Mark R. Herring, Attorney General of Virginia, Linda L. Bryant, Deputy Attorney General, Criminal Justice & Public Safety Division, Donald E. Jeffrey, III, Senior Assistant Attorney General, Eugene P. Murphy, Senior Assistant Attorney General, Katherine Quinlan Adelfio, Assistant Attorney General, Trevor S. Cox, Deputy Solicitor General, OFFICE OF THE ATTORNEY GENERAL OF VIRGINIA, Richmond, Virginia, for Appellants.

          Jennifer T. Stanton, J.T. STANTON, P.C., Norfolk, Virginia; Randall S. Susskind, Jennae R. Swiergula, Stephen Chu, EQUAL JUSTICE INITIATIVE, Montgomery, Alabama, for Appellee.

          Before NIEMEYER and WYNN, Circuit Judges, and Thomas E. JOHNSTON, United States District Judge for the Southern District of West Virginia, sitting by designation.

         Affirmed by published opinion. Judge Wynn wrote the opinion, in which Judge Johnston joined. Judge Niemeyer wrote a dissenting opinion.

          WYNN, Circuit Judge

         Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48, 74 (2010), held that "the Eighth Amendment forbids the sentence of life without parole" for juvenile offenders convicted of nonhomicide offenses. Accordingly, the Supreme Court held that States must provide juvenile nonhomicide offenders sentenced to life imprisonment with "some meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation." Id. at 75.

         Nearly a decade before the Supreme Court decided Graham, Respondent, the Commonwealth of Virginia, sentenced Petitioner Dennis LeBlanc to life imprisonment without parole for a nonhomicide offense he committed at the age of sixteen. In light of Graham, Petitioner sought postconviction relief from his sentence in Virginia state courts. The state courts denied Petitioner relief, holding that Virginia's geriatric release program--which was adopted more than fifteen years before the Supreme Court decided Graham and will allow Petitioner to seek release beginning at the age of sixty--provides the "meaningful opportunity" for release that Graham requires.

         Mindful of the deference we must accord to state court decisions denying state prisoners postconviction relief, we nonetheless conclude that Petitioner's state court adjudication constituted an unreasonable application of Graham. Most significantly, Virginia courts unreasonably ignored the plain language of the procedures governing review of petitions for geriatric release, which authorize the State Parole Board to deny geriatric release for any reason, without considering a juvenile offender's maturity and rehabilitation. In light of the lack of governing standards, it was objectively unreasonable for the state courts to conclude that geriatric release affords Petitioner with the "meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation" Graham demands. Id. Accordingly, Petitioner is entitled to relief from his unconstitutional sentence.


         On July 15, 2002, a Virginia state trial court found Petitioner guilty of rape and abduction. Petitioner committed the offenses on July 6, 1999, when he was sixteen years old. The court sentenced Petitioner to two terms of life imprisonment. Petitioner was ineligible for parole pursuant to Va. Code Ann. § 53.1-165.1, which abolished parole for individuals convicted of a felony committed after January 1, 1995. Petitioner did not appeal his conviction or sentence.

         In 2011, Petitioner filed a motion to vacate his sentence in state trial court. The motion argued that Graham rendered Petitioner's life sentence invalid. In opposition, Respondents asserted that, notwithstanding Virginia's abolition of parole, Petitioner's life sentence did not violate Graham because Virginia allows for conditional release of "geriatric prisoners, " Va. Code Ann. § 53.1-40.01 ("Geriatric Release").

         At a hearing on August 9, 2011, the state trial court orally denied Petitioner's motion to vacate. In rendering its decision, the trial court relied on the Supreme Court of Virginia's decision in Angel v. Commonwealth, 704 S.E.2d 386 (Va. 2011), which held that Geriatric Release provides juveniles sentenced to life in prison a "meaningful opportunity for release" and therefore complies with Graham's parole requirement. J.A. 157. Petitioner appealed the trial court's decision to the Supreme Court of Virginia, which summarily denied his petition for appeal.

         On June 19, 2012, Petitioner filed a petition for habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254 in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. A federal magistrate judge reviewed the petition and recommended that the district court deny it. LeBlanc v. Mathena, No. 2:12-cv-340, 2013 WL 10799406, at *1 (E.D. Va. July 24, 2013). Petitioner filed objections to the magistrate judge's report. Finding the objections well-taken, the district court granted Petitioner's habeas petition, holding that his state court adjudication was contrary to, and an unreasonable application of, Graham. LeBlanc v. Mathena, No. 2:12cv340, 2015 WL 4042175, at *9 (E.D. Va. July 1, 2015). In particular, the district court concluded that Geriatric Release does not offer juvenile offenders sentenced to life imprisonment, like Petitioner, the "meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation" required by Graham. Id. at *9, *11-18. The district court further concluded that Geriatric Release did not comply with Graham's dictate that state penal systems reflect the lesser culpability of juvenile offenders, explaining that Geriatric Release "treats children worse" than adult offenders. Id. at *14 (emphasis in original). Accordingly, the district court remanded Petitioner's case to the state court for resentencing in accordance with Graham. Id. at *19.

         Respondents filed a timely appeal, and the district court stayed its judgment pending resolution of that appeal.



         The Virginia General Assembly established Geriatric Release in 1994--more than 15 years before the Supreme Court decided Graham--as part of its "truth-in-sentencing" reform package. J.A. 169. The primary goal of truth-in-sentencing reform was to close the gap between prisoners' original sentences and the amount of time they actually served. Brian J. Ostrom et al., Truth-in-Sentencing in Virginia 17-20 (April 5, 2001), available at The centerpiece of the reform package was the elimination of parole for all offenders who committed felonies on or after January 1, 1995. Id.

         The statutory provision governing Geriatric Release, as amended, [1] provides, in its entirety:

Any person serving a sentence imposed upon a conviction for a felony offense, other than a Class 1 felony, (i) who has reached the age of sixty-five or older and who has served at least five years of the sentence imposed or (ii) who has reached the age of sixty or older and who has served at least ten years of the sentence imposed may petition the Parole Board for conditional release. The Parole Board shall promulgate regulations to implement the provisions of this section.

Va. Code Ann. § 53.1-40.01. Unlike with other components of the truth-in-sentencing reform package, [2] we have identified no evidence in the contemporaneous legislative record speaking to the General Assembly's goal in enacting Geriatric Release or providing guidance regarding the implementation of Geriatric Release.

         The Virginia Parole Board is responsible for deciding whether to grant petitions for Geriatric Release. Section 53.1-40.01 directs the Parole Board to promulgate regulations necessary to implement the statute. Pursuant to that authority, the Parole Board established administrative procedures governing implementation of the Geriatric Release provision (the "Geriatric Release Administrative Procedures").

         The Geriatric Release Administrative Procedures set forth a two-stage review process for Geriatric Release petitions. At the "Initial Review" stage, the Parole Board reviews a prisoner's petition--which must provide "compelling reasons for conditional release"--and the prisoner's "central file and any other pertinent information." J.A. 287. The Parole Board may deny the petition at the Initial Review stage based on a majority vote. Neither the statute nor the Geriatric Release Administrative Procedures states what constitute "compelling reasons for conditional release, " nor does either document require the Parole Board to consider any particular factors in conducting the Initial Review, nor does either document set forth any criteria for granting or denying a prisoner's petition at the Initial Review stage.

         If the Parole Board does not deny a petition at the Initial Review stage, the petition moves forward to the "Assessment Review" stage. As part of the Assessment Review, a Parole Board member or designated staff member interviews the prisoner. During that interview, the prisoner may present written and oral statements as well as any written material bearing on his case for parole. The interviewer then drafts a written assessment of the prisoner's "suitability for conditional release" and, based on that assessment, recommends whether the Parole Board should grant the petition. J.A. 288. In order to grant Geriatric Release to a prisoner sentenced to life imprisonment, at least four members of the five-member Parole Board must vote in favor of release.

         In engaging in the Assessment Review, Parole Board members should consider "[a]ll factors in the parole consideration process including Board appointments and Victim Input." Id. The Virginia Parole Board Policy Manual includes a long list of "decision factors" to be considered in the parole review process. J.A. 297. These factors include: public safety, the facts and circumstances of the offense, the length and type of sentence, and the proposed release plan. The Parole Board also should consider certain characteristics of the offender, including "the individual's history, physical and mental condition and character, . . . conduct, employment, education, vocational training, and other developmental activities during incarceration, " prior criminal record, behavior while incarcerated, and "changes in motivation and behavior." J.A. 297-99. Finally, the Parole Board should consider impressions gained from interviewing the prisoner as well as information from family members, victims, and other individuals.


         There are several key ways in which Geriatric Release differs from Virginia's parole system, which remains in place for prisoners who committed their offenses before January 1, 1995. The first--and most obvious--is the age limitation. In order to seek Geriatric Release, an inmate must be at least sixty years of age. By contrast, most parole-eligible inmates serving a life sentence will be considered for parole for the first time after serving fifteen years of their sentence. Va. Code Ann. § 53.1-151(C). Other prisoners will be considered for parole when they serve a certain percentage of their sentence. Id. § 53.1-151(A). Accordingly, whereas Petitioner would have been considered for parole after serving twenty years of his sentence, Petitioner cannot apply for Geriatric Release until roughly twenty years later.

         The second difference is that an inmate must actively petition for Geriatric Release once he or she becomes eligible, whereas the Parole Board automatically considers, on an annual basis, whether to release each parole-eligible inmate.

         A third difference is that, unlike with parole, the Parole Board may deny a petition for Geriatric Release at the Initial Review stage without considering any of the "decision factors" enumerated in the Parole Board Policy Manual. Indeed, unlike the parole system, which has established criteria that the Parole Board must consider in granting or denying parole, Geriatric Release affords the Parole Board unconstrained discretion to deny a petition for Geriatric Release at the Initial Review stage. Relatedly, in their petition, prisoners must "identify compelling reasons" why they should receive Geriatric Release, notwithstanding that the "compelling reasons" requirement has no statutory basis and that the Geriatric Release Administrative Procedures do not provide any guidance regarding what constitutes a "compelling reason." J.A. 287. By contrast, there is no requirement that a parole-eligible inmate demonstrate "compelling reasons" in order to obtain parole.

         Fourth, the Parole Board or its designee interviews prisoners undergoing parole review as a matter of course. By contrast, the Parole Board can deny a petition for Geriatric Release at the Initial Review stage "on a review of the record, " without interviewing the inmate. J.A. 287.

         A final notable difference is that four members of the five-member Parole Board must approve Geriatric Release of inmates sentenced to life imprisonment. By contrast, only three members of the Parole Board must approve parole of parole-eligible prisoners.


         We review the district court's decision to grant Petitioner's habeas petition de novo. Richardson v. Branker, 668 F.3d 128, 138 (4th Cir. 2012). The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 ("AEDPA"), which accords deference to final judgments of state courts, circumscribes our review. Nicolas v. Att'y Gen. of Md., 820 F.3d 124, 129 (4th Cir. 2016). Under AEDPA, a federal court may grant habeas relief to a state prisoner, like Petitioner, if the prisoner's state court adjudication "was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States, " 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(1), or "was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the state court proceeding, " id. § 2254(d)(2).

         Respondents contend that the Virginia courts' conclusion that Geriatric Release complies with Graham's parole requirement amounted to a finding of fact, and therefore that the standard set forth in 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(2) applies. Federal courts review habeas petitions raising questions of law or mixed questions of law and fact under Section 2254(d)(1). Horn v. Quarterman, 508 F.3d 306, 312 (5th Cir. 2007); see also, e.g., Barnes v. Joyner, 751 F.3d 229, 246-52 (4th Cir. 2014) (analyzing habeas petition raising mixed question of law and fact under Section 2254(d)(1)). By contrast, Section 2254(d)(2) applies to questions of historical fact. Weaver v. Palmateer, 455 F.3d 958, 963 n.6 (9th Cir. 2006); Ouber v. Guarino, 293 F.3d 19, 27 (1st Cir. 2002) ("[T]he special prophylaxis of section 2254(d)(2) applies only to determinations of basic, primary, or historical facts." (internal quotation omitted)).

         Here, the Virginia courts' evaluation of whether Geriatric Release complies with Graham's parole requirement implicates questions of law, and therefore is subject to review under Section 2254(d)(1). See, e.g., Moore v. Biter, 725 F.3d 1184, 1191 (9th Cir. 2013) (holding that a state court decision was contrary to clearly established law when it held that Graham did not bar a juvenile nonhomicide offender's sentence under which he would be eligible for parole in 127 years); Bunch v. Smith, 685 F.3d 546, 549-50 (6th Cir. 2012) (analyzing whether 89-year sentence was functional equivalent of life sentence for purposes of Graham under Section 2254(d)(1)). Therefore, we must determine whether the state court's decision was "contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of clearly established" Supreme Court law. 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(1).

         In assessing a state prisoner's habeas claims, we review the "last reasoned" state court decision. Ylst v. Nunnemaker, 501 U.S. 797, 803 (1991); Grueninger v. Dir., Va. Dep't of Corrs., 813 F.3d 517, 525 (4th Cir. 2016). "Unless a state- court opinion adopts or incorporates the reasoning of a prior opinion, AEDPA generally requires federal courts to review one state decision." Wooley v. Rednour, 702 F.3d 411, 421 (7th Cir. 2012) (internal quotation omitted). However, "[i]f the last reasoned decision adopts or substantially incorporates the reasoning from a previous state court decision, we may consider both decisions to fully ascertain the reasoning of the last decision." Edwards v. Lamarque, 475 F.3d 1121, 1126 (9th Cir. 2007) (internal quotation omitted); Brian R. Means, Federal Habeas Manual § 3:7 (2016) ("[W]here the last reasoned state court decision adopts or substantially incorporates the reasoning from a previous decision, it is acceptable for the federal court to look at both state court decisions to fully ascertain the reasoning of the last decision.").

         The Supreme Court of Virginia summarily affirmed the trial court's oral denial of Petitioner's motion to vacate. Accordingly, the trial court decision constitutes the last reasoned decision for purposes of our analysis. Nicolas, 820 F.3d at 129. The trial court relied on Angel's reasoning regarding the Geriatric Release provision's compliance with Graham's parole requirement. Accordingly, we must consider both the trial court's decision and Angel in determining whether Petitioner's state court adjudication was "contrary to, or an unreasonable application of" Graham--the question to which we now turn.



         The Eighth Amendment, made applicable to the States through the Fourteenth Amendment, prohibits the infliction of "cruel and unusual punishments." U.S. Const. amend. VIII; Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551, 560 (2005). "To determine whether a punishment is cruel and unusual, courts must look beyond historical conceptions to 'the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society.'" Graham, 560 U.S. at 58 (quoting Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97, 102 (1976)). The Eighth Amendment "prohibits not only barbaric punishments, but also sentences that are disproportionate to the crime committed." Solem v. Helm, 463 U.S. 277, 284 (1983).

         Graham rests on a long line of Supreme Court decisions addressing the constraints imposed by the Eighth Amendment on the punishment of juvenile offenders. In Thompson v. Oklahoma, 487 U.S. 815, 838 (1988), the Supreme Court held that the Eighth Amendment prohibits the death penalty for offenders who committed their crimes before the age of sixteen. The Court grounded its decision on the principle "that punishment should be directly related to the personal culpability of the criminal defendant." Id. at 834 (quoting California v. Brown, 479 U.S. 538, 545 (1987)). "[A]dolescents as a class are less mature and responsible than adults, " the Court explained. Id. "Inexperience, less education, and less intelligence make the teenager less able to evaluate the consequences of his or her conduct while at the same time he or she is much more apt to be motivated by mere emotion or peer pressure than is an adult." Id. at 835. Accordingly, a juvenile's transgression is "not as morally reprehensible as that of an adult." Id. Because juvenile offenders are not as personally culpable as adult offenders, juvenile offenders should not receive punishments as severe as those inflicted on adult offenders, the Court held. Id. at 834.

         In Roper v. Simmons, the Supreme Court again emphasized the unique characteristics of youth when it extended Thompson's bar on the death penalty to all individuals who committed their offenses before the age of eighteen. 543 U.S. at 578. Like Thompson, the Roper Court highlighted juveniles' "lack of maturity and underdeveloped sense of responsibility" and propensity for "reckless behavior." Id. at 569 (citations omitted). Roper further noted that "the character of a juvenile is not as well formed as that of an adult" and juveniles' "personality traits are more transitory, less fixed." Id. at 570. As a result, "it is less supportable to conclude that even a heinous crime committed by a juvenile is evidence of irretrievably depraved character." Id. "Indeed, '[t]he relevance of youth as a mitigating factor derives from the fact that the signature qualities of youth ...

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